December 23, 2018

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The Fourth Sunday In Advent

Scripture Reading: Micah 5:1-6
A Promised Ruler From Bethlehem

[1]Marshal your troops now, city of troops,
    for a siege is laid against us.
They will strike Israel’s ruler
    on the cheek with a rod.

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clans[2] of Judah,
out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
    from ancient times.”

Therefore Israel will be abandoned
    until the time when she who is in labor bears a son,
and the rest of his brothers return
    to join the Israelites.

He will stand and shepherd his flock
    in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
    will reach to the ends of the earth.

And he will be our peace
    when the Assyrians invade our land
    and march through our fortresses.
We will raise against them seven shepherds,
    even eight commanders,
who will rule[3] the land of Assyria with the sword,
    the land of Nimrod with drawn sword.[4]
He will deliver us from the Assyrians
    when they invade our land
    and march across our borders.


  1. Micah 5:1 In Hebrew texts 5:1 is numbered 4:14, and 5:2-15 is numbered 5:1-14.
  2. Micah 5:2 Or rulers
  3. Micah 5:6 Or crush
  4. Micah 5:6 Or Nimrod in its gates

Sermon: “Walled In By Hope”

Every once in a while, a song comes along that speaks in an especially powerful way to particular people. Here’s one that’s become something of an anthem for folks who live in places like New Athens.

John Mellencamp, “Small Town”

I’ve heard that song more times than I can count. It never occurred to me until this week, though, that Jesus would probably sing along. He was born in a small town, too—in Bethlehem, what Micah called “one of the little clans of Judah.”

Mellencamp pulls no punches. The good and the bad of small-town life exist side-by-side in his lyrics, just as they do in our village and in many other places besides.

Page through a New Athens Historical Society publication, and you go back to New Athens’ glory days. Our village boasted a thriving downtown, as well as more taverns than even the thirstiest foundry worker or coalminer could drink his way through in a night.

Those days are gone, not just for New Athens, but for many other villages and small towns. 2016 census figures show that rural America is getting older faster than the rest of the country and also has a shrinking population.

And yet—here we are. We’re here because we know we find something in a small town we can’t find anywhere else, something profound, valuable, and important.

In October of last year, The Atlantic published in article entitled, “What America Is Losing As Its Small Towns Struggle.” The article talked a lot about the work of Arthur Morgan who, back in the forties, was a strong voice on behalf of small towns.

While big city folks might not worry much about what happens the small towns, Morgan said they’d better start paying attention.

“The controlling factors of civilization,” he said, “aren’t art, business, science, or government. These are its fruits. The roots of civilization are elemental traits—goodwill, neighborliness, fair play, courage, tolerance, open-minded inquiry, and patience.”

Those roots run deep in small town America, Morgan said, and nourish the larger culture. If its small towns roots die, Morgan warned, the rest of America will wither and die, too.

Sociologists today agree. One of them, Patrick Carr, says that, “in certain parts of the country, [small] towns function as the glue that holds everybody together.” The United States, The Atlantic says, needs its cities, but it needs its small town and rural areas, too.

Micah had no use for cities. He came from a small village named Moresheth, not far from the city of Gath, which the Assyrians destroyed when they invaded Judah.

When Micah wandered out of the backcountry sometime in the last third of the eighth century BCE, he said that God’s salvation would come, not from Jerusalem or from another powerful city, but from Bethlehem, “one of the little clans of Judah.”

Those with power, Micah declared, had stolen land and inheritances from the poor. They’d evicted widows from their homes, rigged scales and weights to cheat customers, taken bribes, and done much more beside.

God’s justice would prevail, Micah warned, graphically describing the sins of those who oppressed the poor as well as the fate of Jerusalem itself.

Listen, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Shouldn’t you know justice?—you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a caldron.

Therefore, because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height. (Micah 3:1-3, 12)

That’s the world in which Micah preached. That’s the world into which Christ was born. That’s the world in which we, too, live—a world that God still calls us to live in as people of hope. Hope, real hope, faces the darkness and doesn’t run from it.

Oh, we can try to go through life ignoring or avoiding challenging times and situations. The thing is, it’s impossible. Bad stuff happens—end of story.

Living in denial also means denying the truth, which is never a good foundation for faith or for life.

It’s like someone who looks out the window, sees snow falling, and then says, “It can’t be snowing!” Well, it is snowing, whether you like it or not. Denying what’s happening won’t shovel your walk.

Still, the appeal of denial is, well, undeniable. In small doses, it can be okay. We all need an occasional break from a never-ending avalanche of bad news trying to bury us.

This time of year, we find that relief in family gatherings, in spending time with friends, and in giving and receiving gifts. Many also find relief watching the Hallmark Channel.

Just in case you were wondering, tonight’s schedule includes Christmas Made to Order at 8 PM and Christmas Bells Are Ringing at 9 PM. On Christmas day, there’s even a special edition of When Calls the Heart.

Viewership of Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas” last year was up 4% over the year before. I’ve no doubt that this year’s will be up again.
I take in a Hallmark offering from time to time myself. We all need a break sometimes, a minivacation in a world where every couple finds true love and every movie ends with a chaste, though lingering, kiss.
The thing is, we don’t live in the Hallmark Channel. We live in New Athens, one of the little clans, a village weathering the same storms buffeting other small towns.

Our own personal lives have their share of storms, too. Some are so powerful it seems we can hardly stand. That’s when we need hope, not Hallmark.

In July 2017, Charles Pinches had an article in the journal The Christian Century called, “What Does It Mean to Hope?”

He noted that the church scholar Thomas Aquinas spoke of “natural hope.” We see natural hope at work whenever a dog spies a rabbit and takes off after it. Hope moves the dog to act for the sake of what might happen.

In we human beings, hope does much more than just send us chasing after something we might like to have. Hope goes with us all along life’s journey. Hope connects past to future and all of us one to each other.
Hope keeps us going when we face injustice, hurt, or pain. Despite his sometimes-harsh words, Micah dripped of hope. It was only because he could live into another future that Micah could speak out against the abuse and injustice he saw around him.

Christian hope is a gift of the Spirit. We don’t have to chase it down. Instead, we need to realize that it’s already present in our lives and, even more, is constantly renewed by God.

Hopeful Christians don’t live in denial. They don’t ignore the darkness. They’re anchored by the power of hope in the life they live. Our acts of hope won’t always be the stuff of headlines. Most will be small and every day.

That’s as it should be, Micah says. Faith shaped by hope in God’s coming reign looks for it in places and people that are as nothing in the eyes of the world.

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)

God still looks out for the least among the clans of Judah, as well as for the smallest of villages in St. Clair County. That is our hope. That is our faith. That is the good news of Christmas.